Food assistance, a lifeline for Syrian family

Thursday, October 15, 2015

When Mohammad, 50, and Zakiya, 42, married in Syria 20 years ago, they had one major wish; to create a big family. Their wish came true. God gave them eight beautiful children.

As with many women in rural Syria, Zakiya did not work outside the home. Mohammad was the family’s provider. He worked as a tile setter. The family struggled financially, but they were happy as Mohammad was able to provide the basic needs for his family.

In 2012, the family’s story changed. They escaped to Lebanon to seek refuge from the fighting in Syria. A tent comprised of a basic wooden frame covered by pieces of carton and tattered canvas, built by Mohammad and Zakiya, has been the family’s home for the past three years. They have no neighbours, just large piles of sand and gravel nearby that provide an unhealthy environment for the family.

They were unaware that many other Syrian refugee families lived together in informal tented settlements in the Bekaa Valley. When Mohammad, Zakiya and their children came to Lebanon, they simply focused on obtaining the basics for survival – shelter, food and water.

The three children are full of life despite their difficult circumstances. Photo by Suzy Sainovski. 

Mohammad does not work. His varicose veins make movement difficult. “I was not that sick in Syria.” Mohammad’s tearful eyes spoke before his words did. Currently, the family’s main source of income is the $13.50 food assistance electronic ‘e-cards’ they receive per family member per month, implemented by World Vision Lebanon and funded by the World Food Programme.

On the fifth of each month, $13.5 (USD) is transferred to the e-card of each beneficiary. Then, beneficiaries can go to local markets contracted by WVL and WFP, and buy food with the value of money transferred.

“Our survival depends on the e-cards”, says Zakiya with a smile. “We say thank God, because we are not starving, we are still alive,” Zakiya shares. “The $13.50 e-card lasts for only five days. For the rest of the month, we go into debt to survive”, shares Mohammad.

Zakiya’s smile accompanies her every word. Mohammad says that her smiling face doesn’t change in spite of the family’s difficult circumstances. “Living in debt is better than seeing our children starve. Whether happy or sad, life has to go on…Aren’t our children still alive? So, we thank God”, she says.

Hasan (9) in the middle hugs his youngest sister Fatmeh (4). Photo by Suzy Sainovski. 

With that $13.50 per person per month, and the food bought on credit, the family is able to buy basic items such as rice, bread, bulgur, sugar, tea, lentils, beans, yoghurt and water. “When we go to the supermarket, we crave meat, sweets, fruit, juices and milk, but we know that we cannot afford everything we want”, says Zakiya, staying silent for a few seconds, without forgetting to smile.

Their 7-yeard old daughter, Nour, finally breaks her shyness and jumps in saying “I eat only once per day, mostly fried potatoes”.  Fatmeh, her -year-old sister, looks too thin and has dark lines beneath her eyes, yet surprisingly keeps on jumping and playing nonetheless. Fatmeh joins the discussion by sharing that she eats three times per day; homous for breakfast, beans for lunch and fried potatoes for dinner. “I get full”, Fatmeh shares excitedly.

The family is gathered inside their tent. Photo by Mona Daoud.

“Fatmeh, my four-year-old child, was one year old when we fled Syria. I breast-fed her until she was two years old because I could not afford to buy milk. And since she was two years old, Fatmeh has not had any milk. I could not afford getting her any”, shares Zakiya. In Syria, as Zakiya explains, mothers usually breast-feed female children until the age of one year and six months at most.

Zakiya and her children seem to be coping with the situation positively despite their continuous craving of meat and sweets. Mohammad, however, seems to be holding a heavy burden on his shoulders as he feels incapable of providing sufficiently for the family, unlike when they were in Syria. “My debt has reached USD$953. I am afraid that the supermarket owner will stop allowing me to buy food on credit. I am also scared that the land owner will ask us to get off his land if we do not pay him the accumulated unpaid rent”, shares Mohammad, whose pale and thin face says a lot about their situation. Mohammad said he has lost around 20 kilograms during his three years in Lebanon. “Sometimes I dream about meat, and I wake up very disappointed”.

The three children are standing outside their tent, surrounded by large piles of sand and gravel nearby that provides an unhealthy environment for the family. Photo by Suzy Sainovski. 


Mohammad shares that the WFP e-card was more helpful when the amount was USD$27 in summer and USD$30 in winter for each member during the period January-December 2014. “The e-card used to feed us for at least 15 days. Sometimes, we ate meat”, Mohammad recalls with grief.

Due to a funding shortfall, the value of the e-cards was cut to $19 and then in July 2015 to $13.50 per person per month, which is less than 60 cents per day. The cuts are usually communicated through text messages sent directly to refugee’s mobile phones. Information posters are also displayed in shops and World Vision Lebanon provides a hotline service for when refugees have questions about the humanitarian aid they are receiving. World Vision’s Food Assistance Manager Johnson Lafortune says, “Refugees are showing fatigue and many are resorting to child labour and early marriage just to help the family survive.”



Mohammad, the father, seems to be holding a heavy burden on his shoulders as he feels incapable of providing sufficiently for the family. Mohammad has lost around 20 kilograms during his three years in Lebanon. Photo by Mona Daoud. 

“Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine that I receive a text message to my mobile phone saying: The e-card value is now $40. Do you think that will ever happen?” Mohammad asks, while smiling for the first time since the start of our conversation.